Rory McIlroy shot a third round 75 as high winds blew the Dubai Desert Classic wide open.
The 21-year old finished the day tied for the lead on eight under par with Dane Anders Hansen and South Africa’s Thomas Aiken. But there are now 30 players within five shots of the leaders with Tiger Woods lurking ominously just a stroke off the pace after a battling 72 that featured an eagle, four birdies, four bogeys and a double.
McIlroy was simply pleased that he managed to dig deep and limit the damage after high winds caused major problems for the afternoon starters.
After bogeys at the first three holes, the world No 7 did well to drop just one shot at the seventh before covering his last 11 holes in one under par.
“I just got off to a rough start but I thought I steadied the ship really well,” McIlroy said after hitting just five fairways in winds gusting over 25 mph. “Four over through seven so to play the last 11 holes in one-under was actually a pretty good effort.
“I’ve played the back nine well all week. I usually do. So I was just trying to stay as patient as possible. Couldn’t really try and force. It just needed to play smart and try not to make any bogeys. Really just limit the damage.”
A year ago, McIlroy might have lost his patience and the plot but he did well in the end to remain in the lead and he puts that down to maturity.
“There’s been a few rounds that I let get away from me, the second round at The Open last year, being a prime example, and I didn’t let that happen today, which was a positive sign,” he said.
“And I’m still, you know, in the lead, tied for the lead, but it was a day where if I had got off to a little bit of a better start and maybe played a little better, could I have habit of an advantage. But I’m still in there with a great chance. It’s just very bunched at the minute and now a lot of guys have a chance to win.”
Woods went out in 39 but started the back nine eagle-birdie and eventually came home in 33 thanks to a sliding, left to right, 15 foot birdie putt at the 18th.
He punched the air after that one to earn a final round pairing with Sergio Garcia, who led by two shots at one stage but came home in 41 for a 75 that leaves him in a seven-way share of fourth.
Asked to comment on a less than orthodox 72, Woods joked: “18 pars. I don’t know what you’re talking about.
“No, it was tough out there. I got off to a tough start there and battled back and then lost it just before the turn; and battled back again and lost it again at 16 and then battled back at 18. So, it was a tough day.”
After struggling to control his ball in windy conditions, Woods expected to finish the day several shots behind but Garcia double bogeyed the 17th when he tried to drive the green, hit a tree and ended up being forced to take a penalty drop from a bush in the desert.
Woods said: “I was three back playing that hole, and Sergio was playing 17 and maybe could drive 17 and birdie 18 and all of a sudden, that’s five shots, a totally different ballgame.
“We have a bunched leaderboard. There’s a bunch of guys with a chance to win tomorrow. Sergio and Rory didn’t pull away.
“So it gave everyone else a chance coming into tomorrow, and right as of right now, ten guys or so are within two or three shots of the lead, so it will be interesting tomorrow.”
Conditions are forecast to be similar on Sunday and McIlroy knows that he will have to be more patient than ever if he is to get his second European Tour victory.
He said: “I just have to be positive and say I’m one shot better or two shots better than a lot of the guys. I just have to look at it that way. Depending on what the conditions are like tomorrow, I think if it’s like it was today, it’s just a test of patience and trying to really play smart golf and make pars and make the odd birdie when you can get it.”
Reflecting on a tough third day, he added: “It’s just so tricky. I mean, it’s so hard, as well, when you have not played in conditions like that, just to go out and play the same way you have.
“I hit a bad drive on the first but got away with it and hit a really good second shot just to the back of the green and had a bit of a nasty lie there, and just didn’t get all of the ball and made bogey.
“Hit a decent drive on 2 and it goes into the waste area, and hit a really good 7 iron on 3 and I think it’s going to be on the green and it comes up in a terrible lie in the bunker. So it was just one of those days where not much went for me, but hopefully that will change tomorrow.”
Garcia lamented his back luck on 17 but he despite his 41 on the back nine, he knows he’s still got a fighting chance in the final round.
“I didn’t play the back nine that badly,” he claimed. “I hit a couple bad shots, but I was holding it nicely. I was 9 under. I had a couple chances to get to 10, and if you manage to shoot even par or 1 under, even 1 over in these conditions, is a good score and I was on my way.
“If something different happens on 17, I birdie there and you never know, I might birdie the next, and I’m at 11 under instead of 7. So there’s really nothing you can do about that I guess.”
Michael Hoey bogeyed the last for a 73 but at six under par he is just two shots off the pace in a share of 11th while world No 1 Lee Westwood is just three behind on five under after a 72.
“Might have a sniff at it,” Westwood said. “You never know. You never know.”